10/24/2005 11:03 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Global Sex Trafficking

Cambodia – Traveling through the lush countryside provides a vivid reminder that globalization is a mixed blessing: There is cell phone service everywhere, but also starving peasants huddled in houses made of tin and palm thatch. Cambodia is stumbling towards modernity, but it doesn’t have a lot going for it: the Prime Minister used to be part of the Khmer Rouge, business interests control the Assembly, and the country lacks natural resources. As a result, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia; its’ fragile economy clings to two “cash cows” - garment manufacture and sex.

We’re told that the government has cleaned up the sex industry quite a bit, that Cambodia no longer deserves its’ reputation as the “pervert’s paradise” – the prime stop for pedophiles in South East Asia. While that may be so, the stories we heard from Mu Suchoa, and the other Cambodian women activists we met, indicated that a lot of human rights’ work remains to be done. This is a rigidly patriarchical society, where women are viewed as second-class citizens, at best. Although this reality permeates the culture, it is particularly evident in the appalling statistics for rape, spousal abuse, and sex trafficking.

One day, we traveled to Takeo province, south east of Phnom Penh, to visit several weaving cooperatives. As soon as we got off the main road, we saw evidence of wrenching poverty. While Phnom Penh grows by leaps and bounds, nothing much has changed in the lives of rural Khmer over the last decade. The poverty level for Cambodian families is one dollar per day and most of the country folk earn less than half of that, as the men struggle in the rice fields and the women labor on their looms. Typically, they live too far from a school for their children to receive any education. Once in awhile, in order to get out of debt – usually caused by a medical emergency – a family will take the desperate step of selling one of their daughters to a sex trafficker.

Each year, throughout the world about 800,000 women are either sold or abducted into sexual slavery. Many of these girls – they range in age from 6 years up – come from South East Asia, with a disproportionate number from Cambodia; at any give time, about 100,000 women and children are being trafficked here. Although prostitution is illegal, the Cambodia government looks the other way while travel agents lead sex tours throughout the country.

Several years ago, Mu Soucha – at the time, Cambodian Minister of Women and Veteran’s affairs - became outraged at the rampant prostitution in Bangkok when she saw women “turning tricks” in the park across the street from the National Assembly building. Soucha quickly learned that sex work is part of a larger dysfunctional system: both Thailand and Vietnam are better rice producers and Cambodia has only a few timber and rubber plantations. Thus, the country has only two reliable industries: tourism and garment manufacture. There are relatively few available jobs in either sector, and the positions that do open up require literacy – 45 percent of Cambodian women are illiterate – so country girls who come to Phnom Penh have few options. Each year only 15 percent find regular jobs; many of the remainder turn to prostitution. Between the ready supply of sex workers and the cultivation of Cambodia as a titillating alternative destination, the Cambodian sex industry is booming. Some say that it accounts for as much as 10 percent of the gross domestic product.

The exact number of Cambodian prostitutes is uncertain, but estimates range as high as 100,000 in a population of 13 million. Of these, 35 percent are thought to be under the age of 18. Mu Soucha has attacked this problem from several fronts: One has been to lead a campaign against pedophilia. There are now billboards and advertisements throughout Cambodia warning, “Sex with Children is a Crime,” listing the phone number of a sexual exploitation hotline. Threatened with trade sanctions, the Cambodian government has cooperated with an international effort to arrest pedophiles.

Another initiative has raised awareness of HIV/AIDS. Accompanied by Khemara, the first Cambodian NGO for women, we visited a drop-in center for sex workers, where men and women are educated about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and taught methods of contraception. There is a growing urgency to this process as roughly 30 percent of sex workers are infected.

The big challenge for Mu Soucha, and the other women leaders in Cambodia, is what to do about the sex workers. There are two points of view: The official U.S.A.I.D. position argues that sex work is inherently oppressive and, therefore, no effort should be supported that “advocates the legalization or practice of prostitution.” The other attitude, adopted by groups such as Womyn’s Agenda for Change, is that it is more important to provide a nonjudgmental refuge for sex workers, a safe place where they can discuss contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and practical responses to the violence that is their daily fear. The practical concern is that many of the sex workers are functionally illiterate and have never known any other occupation; if they are “rescued” from their vocation, where do they go to earn money in one of the poorest countries in Asia?

For Westerners visiting Cambodia, the sex industry is a grim reminder that while globalization can serve to bring the people of the world closer together, it can also separate us into the haves and the have nots, those who have human rights and those who don’t. There are many things that can be done about sex trafficking; one would be to support the Global Fund for Women, (, and other groups that fund the women activists here. Another is for those of us in the West, particularly in the U.S., to take a stand. To declare that everyone in the world deserves to have their human rights defended and that this principle is more important than global corporations and corrupt politicians making a lot of money; to force Cambodia, and similar countries, to take their human rights’ issues seriously.